What does it mean to have the original text of the Greek New Testament? There are varying definitions of this term “original”, which adds confusion to the discussion of New Testament textual criticism. I won’t go down the road of explaining every nuance in the discussion of defining terms, but I will say that not everybody agrees on what exactly it means to possess the Divine Original. In order to simplify the skewed beliefs in this topic, I will present the varying views people espouse in the form of a spectrum. The spectrum does not necessarily present any one view, the goal is to provide two extremes so that the reader can understand the discussion generally.
On one end, there is a hyper-literal understanding of “original”. In this understanding, attaining the original would mean to have not only the words penned by the authors, but also the handwriting, the size of the text, punctuation, formatting of the document itself, and so on. This definition requires an absolute facsimile-style replica of the original text of the New Testament. Defining the original on such strict terms disallows for any meaningful pursuit of the original, and more or less rejects any view from being considered that isn’t trying to attain the level of precision required by this perspective.
On the other end, there lies a more allegorical or historical understanding of what it means to have the original. The original simply represents a historical perspective of the communities that scribed the manuscripts, and thus it is more accurate to say that there are original(s). Each independent manuscript and its copies represents its own original, which speaks to the historical effort of transmitting the New Testament text(s). The original is not really the goal in the sense that one version of the New Testament is the “correct” version. All of the manuscripts are “correct” in their own, unique way, because they are simply representatives of the “kaleidoscopic” nature of human communities.
In the middle of these two views are two perspectives that represent the majority of conservative Christian scholarship. On the left of center is the view that to have the original is to have the original intentions and doctrines that the authors attempted to communicate. God has preserved everything He intended to preserve, which is not necessarily every jot or tittle, just every important doctrine. On the right of center is the view that God has kept His Word “pure in all ages”, and that every word has been exposed to the people of God and received by them.
The former view requires a continued effort to reconstruct those places of the Greek New Testament that are not certain as original, and the latter view says that the original text has been delivered to the people of God in every generation, even today. These two theological understandings of what it means to have the Divine Original are the major epistemological foundations for what view of the text of Scripture one takes. There is obviously a wealth of nuance in between and on either side of these two positions, and not everybody fits perfectly into one of these two categories, but it is important to offer basic definitions in order to properly interact with them.
An Examination of the Majority Conservative View of Preservation
The majority view of conservative Christians is that the Bible has been preserved, just not precisely. This allows for wiggle-room for textual variants and places where the original, or earliest text cannot be determined. To them, this is the simple reality of the story that the manuscripts tell. Because there are places where the original reading cannot be determined with absolute precision, God never intended for His people to be absolutely certain on every word of Scripture. That is not to say that those who adopt this position are not in pursuit of the Divine Original. In fact, there are many scholars who desire greatly, and are determined to find every original reading. This is probably worth noting, especially considering the opinion that there are “no text critics attempting to find the original”. Yet, in some regards, this opinion is true. There are few, if any, textual scholars who are trying to find the original in the sense of “every jot or tittle”. Note how the different understandings of what it means to have the Divine Original can cause a disconnect between these two camps within conservative Christianity.
The fundamental sticking point, and the reality of this optimistic outlook, is that even the most idealistic text-critic does not believe that the original has been attained as of yet. There may be some that believe they have found the original, but when pressed on what text they should point to, I have yet to see one actually point to a text and say, “this is the original text of the New Testament in Greek”. That is because the effort of reconstructionist textual criticism is still ongoing. If there was a text to point to, the efforts of modern textual critics would be done. The reality that the work of reconstruction of the Greek New Testament is still ongoing demonstrates that even the most conservative of text-critics do not believe that there is a final text just yet. They may believe that the text can be found or reconstructed, but this still remains to be done.
This, of course, is an optimistic perspective, and for every text-critic that believes the original can be found, there is a counterpart who does not believe it can be found. This should cause one to raise an eyebrow and ask, “why is that?” What is it about a supposedly preserved text that makes it so elusive to textual scholars? And why is there disagreement on whether or not the original can be found? In any case, all of these scholars agree that the original has not been found, which is demonstrated by the reality that the work of New Testament textual criticism is still a thriving discipline.
An Explanation for the Ongoing Pursuit of the Divine Original
The ongoing pursuit of the Divine Original is not due to the lack of intellectual fortitude of textual scholars. In fact, some of the brightest doctors of the Christian faith have taken up this mantle. The reason that this work is still in progress is due to the weakness of empirical methodology in light of the extant data. Most Christians have woefully misunderstood the nature of the extant manuscript data, believing that the thousands of copies are all ancient or early. While many understand that the majority of New Testament manuscripts are from the early-middle period and beyond, there remains a large number of Christians who truly believe that there are thousands of early papyri witnesses that testify to the New Testament text. The reality is, that one could not collate an entire Greek New Testament from the papyri.
This is why there has been a shift from finding the original to finding the Ausgangstext. Since all of the substantial extant data is localized to one region and mostly dates to the third and fourth century, that is as far back as many scholars are willing to go. The Ausgangstext will inevitably take on some form of the early Egyptian manuscripts because the earliest manuscripts survived due to the dry climate of Egypt. Scientifically speaking, the earliest manuscripts can only show what the New Testament text looked like in one localized region 300 years after the autographs were penned. There is no empirical methodology that can show conclusively that the Egyptian manuscripts from the third and fourth century represent the original text of the New Testament.
Scholars can spend decades trying to explain the origin of each reading and variant, but ultimately this effort is limited by the extant data, which is disjointed from the originals by several centuries. A lot of copying can happen in that amount of time. Comparing the transmission of the New Testament to the Iliad and other ancient works does not objectively address the problem at hand. It does not matter how accurate the Bible is in relation to other ancient texts. The only observation that one can conclude from comparing transmission histories is the purity of the New Testament in the light of the purity of another text.
Scholars can compare these early Egyptian readings to later Byzantine readings and try to develop genealogical maps of how those readings are related. They can even attempt to determine which of these readings came first. But at the end of the day, the limitations of the scientific nature of reconstructionist textual criticism prevents such a determination from being final. They can only say, with varying degrees of probability and confidence that the reading is likely to be early or original. This is due to the preferences of the text-critics making these determinations. In any field of historical-empirical-scientific pursuit, the science will be guided by the biases of the scientists. The only way a scientific method could prove, without any hesitation, that one particular text is the original, would be if the originals were found. And even then, there would be no way of determining if those originals were actually original. At the end of the day, scholars are comparing a text hanging three feet in midair to other texts hanging three feet in midair.
The Necessity for a Theological Method
The ongoing and well-intentioned pursuit for the Divine Original by empirical methods is indicative of a larger theological conundrum. The very premise assumes a theological position of the text of the New Testament that is difficult to defend. The assumption is that God has preserved His Word, in so far as they represent all of the original doctrines and ideas the authors intended to convey. This standard is unfortunately too arbitrary. It is one thing to posit that all the original doctrines have been conveyed, and another to actually support that position with data. Who gets to decide which doctrines were the ones conveyed by the original authors? At this point in the history of textual criticism of the New Testament, this takes a default position of, “The doctrines that can be demonstrated to be as early as the Egyptian manuscripts”.The doctrines that God has preserved just so happen to be the doctrines that the small group of text-critical scholars have approved.
The approved text(s) of the modern period has trimmed and updated the authorized text of the Reformation period. There is no doubt that the modern text is substantially different than the traditional text in its variant units. This being the case, rather than trying to prove empirically which text is better, the real effort must be to understand this shift theologically in light of the Scriptural doctrine of preservation. Sure, it is helpful to understand the transmission history of the New Testament text, and it is important work indeed, but the fact remains that the work of modern textual scholars has introduced a serious theological paradox. Either there are two (or more) lines of transmission that God has preserved, or one of them is correct and the other is an anomaly.
In the case that God preserved two (or more) Bibles, then the subject of doctrine becomes a matter of preference. If there is not one Word of God, then one can adopt any reading they deem fit to justify their theological position or opinion of the evidence. There are enough variants within the manuscript tradition to do just that. Christianity becomes Christianities, and one can easily fall into the assumptions of Walter Bauer and those like him. There was not one Bible, and there is not one Christianity. This paradox of course was capitalized on by secular scholarship which has culminated in various mythicist positions, which are built on the premise of multiple Bibles, multiple Christianities. The Bible is yet another example of humans trying to find meaning. Assuming that no conservative scholar would be comfortable allowing such a doctrine of preservation that says that multiple Bibles have been preserved, I turn now to the real paradox – that one of the two lines of transmission is errant, and the other representative of the original.
This is not a question of which text can be proved to be original or better than the other. The ongoing efforts of modern text-critics demonstrates that there are enough doctrinal differences between the modern text and the traditional text to continue the work to prove the modern text superior. If the traditional text accomplishes the goal of preserving the doctrines and intentions of the New Testament authors, the work, in theory, would be done. There would be no need to carry on, as all of the doctrines are preserved in the traditional text. The somewhat vague standard of the modern preservationist doctrine actually allows for adherence to the traditional text, given that one believes that text has all of the important doctrines. That is why the modern definition of preservation is somewhat at odds with itself. In one sense, it only requires all the basic doctrines, and on the other, it desires that the words be correct as well. This reality demonstrates that the theological position of “all the important doctrines” is in itself at odds with modern text-critical efforts. Either the traditional text contains all the important doctrines that were intended by the New Testament authors, or it is seriously flawed and should be rejected. The fact that scholars are still working demonstrates the belief in the latter.
That is why this must be approached theologically. By understanding the implications to the doctrine of preservation, one should be able to determine if the traditional text should be rejected for the approved text(s) of the scholars. In the case that the modern text is original or earliest, the majority of the manuscripts of the New Testament are largely errant and the people of God, for an egregious amount of time, received a version of God’s Word that was flawed. They read, studied, and preached from passages that were incorrect, or added to the text. They did not hear the voice of their Shepherd. And since no final product has been produced, this is still the case. The people of God are waiting for the next breakthrough in text-critical studies to tell them which passages of Scripture should, or shouldn’t be read.
The reality of ongoing text-critical efforts betrays the theological foundations of the effort itself. That is to say, that in creating a substantially different text from the traditional text, one must admit that either God did not preserve just one stream of text, or that the church did not have the correct text for a long period of time. One can say that these two text forms are not significantly different, but if that be the case, the modern scholars and theologians and pastors should have no issue with the traditional text being used for all matters of faith and practice.
If the form of the modern text(s) generally represent a text that was buried in the sand for over a thousand years, and that text is different from the text that was not buried in the sand, then the implications of that reality must be that either both texts are just fine, or that the people of God were without the voice of their Shepherd. In the case that the modern text-critic says that the traditional text preserves the important doctrines, then it must be admitted that by preservation it is actually meant partial preservation. And the most critical observation of this entire discussion is that this is assuming the Egyptian texts are as significant as they are made out to be. From a theological perspective, the text that was buried in the sand, that doesn’t relate to the rest of the manuscripts in the variant units, seems like more of a localized anomaly than anything else. If the goal is to find the original, as it is said, which seems to be the more significant text? Without even examining the evidence, or collating manuscripts, the theological determination must be that the Egyptian texts were a strange anomaly in the transmission history of the New Testament text, or that the differences are so minor that the work can be finished.
It may be that the theological approach to the Holy Scriptures is too meticulous, and the standard of precision too stringent. Yet if this is the case, where is the standard? What level of precision are we trying to attain? Who gets to decide what is an important doctrine, or what doctrines the authors intended to communicate? This of course culminates practically in the Bible one reads in their mother tongue. At this point, there are two major options for Christians – traditional Bibles and modern Bibles. Theologically speaking, both represent two schools of thought in conservative Christianity on preservation. On one hand, the traditional Bibles represent the scholarship of a different era, and generally take the form of the majority of the extant data (the 5,000+ manuscripts), and on the other hand the modern Bibles represent the scholarship of the modern era, which rely heavily on a cluster of Egyptian manuscripts and the theories of scholars who approve them. It is up to the Christian to determine which understanding of “original” they wish to adopt. By original, does it mean “original in doctrine”, or “original in words”? If the former is taken, then both texts seem to be fine. If the latter is taken, then there appears to be less options for translational choice, namely the Bibles of the Reformation period. No matter which road one takes, the fact remains that scholars will continue their pursuit of the Divine Original, or at least the earliest one can get back to with empirical methodologies.